A Cardiologist's Determination to Cure the Troubled Heart

“Six years ago when I would talk to patients about a cure rather than a drug treatment for atrial fibrillation, people thought I was crazy,” recalls Nassir F. Marrouche, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine and director of the U’s Atrial Fibrillation Program. “Now, those critics are sending their family members to me.”

Atrial fibrillation (“afib” for short) is a condition that creates a quivering heart or abnormal beating because the heart’s two small upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively, allowing blood to pool or clots to form. Some 2.5 million Americans suffer from this and the likelihood of developing it increases significantly with age. Symptoms might include palpitations, heart pounding, chest pain, shortness of breath, tiredness or headaches.

To cure the problem Marrouche uses catheter-based ablation to cauterize portions of the heart where abnormal electrical pulses are setting off irregular heartbeats. Marrouche helped pioneer this procedure with pivotal research and has performed more than 1,000 ablation procedures, making him one of the top experts in the field. In 2006, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology implemented ablation of Atrial Fibrillation into their guidelines.

When climbing 12 stairs left Jim Daily, 69, struggling for his breath, he knew he needed help. He had been treating his atrial fibrillation with medication for eight years, but eventually the drugs stopped working and his heart was functioning at less than 12 percent. After having catheter-based ablation, Daily says: “It’s like I got a second chance at life.”

Marrouche discourages his patients (who come from as far as Canada, New York, and Europe) from treating afib with medications, stating that 1 to 8 percent of patients suffer from medication and that eventually the drugs will fail. He adds that a significant percent of afib patients who receive  medication or a pacemakerbased treatment will suffer from a stroke, in 30 percent the heart muscle will fail, and fatalities overall will increase two-fold.

Marrouche’s statistics are impressive. Ninety percent of his patients are arrhythmia free and off heart medications within three months of the ablation procedure. “I’m a very impatient guy,” says Marrouche, who performs ablation on nine to 10 patients a week and hopes to almost triple that number. “I like to see quick results—and with heart treatments you often see patients recover right before your eyes.”

Visit our Spotlight Archive for a complete list of previous Spotlights.